Story #1 takes place in the seventies, at an international ski race in Austria. The world’s best racers are all training on a course that possesses a slightly unique feature: after the finish line, skiers must traverse a long, flat section that leads back to the chairlift.
Now most competitors do exactly what you would expect: they complete their practice run, and then make a beeline for the chairlift – they point their skis and zoom over the flats, in order to get there as quickly as possible.
All except one skier. This guy does the complete opposite of a beeline. He crosses the finish line, and then skies ever so slowly across the flats, carving curlicue turns in the snow. He plays with the snow and the edges of his skis, to see what happens. He goofs around. His name? Ingemar Stenmark, a.k.a. the the greatest slalom skier who ever lived, winner of more ski races than anyone in history.
Story #2 takes place in the late 1940s, in a cafeteria at Cornell. A young physics professor notices a student tossing a dinner plate into the air. The plate is wobbling, and the red insignia of Cornell is going around, and, just for fun, the professor decides to try to figure out the motion of the rotating plate by writing some equations — “piddling around,” he calls it. The professor’s name was Richard Feynman; those piddling equations later led to his 1965 Nobel Prize for Physics.
There are loads of other stories about the power of goofing around – in fact, here’s a whole book on them. And it’s clear that goofing around is on the rise — it’s official corporate policy at Google, which grants its employees “20-Percent Time” for them to pursue projects of their own choosing and initiative. Many of Google’s best innovations — Google News, Gmail, among others — trace their roots to 20-Percent Time. Other organizations are following suit.
We all know at some level that goofing around is a smart thing to do. But I think there’s an deeper connection to explore here that has to do with the specific kind of goofing that leads to innovation. To put it simply: it’s not about the goofer – it’s about the precise quality of of goofing.
We get some good insights into this from new research about daydreaming. As this WSJ story points out, daydreaming is not just idle time:
“People assumed that when your mind wandered it was empty,” says cognitive neuroscientist Kalina Christoff at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. As measured by brain activity, however, “mind wandering is a much more active state than we ever imagined, much more active than during reasoning with a complex problem.”
What’s more, daydreaming activity is not all equal. As the ever-insightful Jonah Lehrer points out in this story, daydreaming has been linked to all kinds of creative breakthroughs – if it’s done right.
“The point is that it’s not enough to just daydream,” [Dr. Jonathan] Schooler [a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara] says. “Letting your mind drift off is the easy part. The hard part is maintaining enough awareness so that even when you start to daydream you can interrupt yourself and notice a creative insight.”
I think that’s an interesting zone – the directed daydream, where part of the mind is held in reserve, watching intently for a good result – much like Feynman and Stenmark. We can visualize these goofing-around moments as places where our wiring gets a chance to stretch into new areas; where we are activating the edges of our neural circuitry, creating new, surprising, and potentially useful connections.
So what does good goofing have in common? Three qualities, it seems:
- It’s inherently fun, and playful, because it’s rooted in a genuine enjoyment of the process.
- It explores the edges of our abilities, not the center. It finds new connections between unexpected sources, rather than going over old territory.
- It doesn’t always lead to something important. In fact, it usually doesn’t.
I think this final point is a worthy one. We never hear about the wobbly-plate daydreams that do not produce Nobel Prizes – but that doesn’t mean they are any less important in the long run. As with so many other things in life, we can’t control the outcome, but we can slightly tilt the odds, provided we make it a habit.
As the great ski coach and author Warren Witherell of Burke Mountain Academy likes to say, real talent is not about execution. It’s about exploration.